Thursday, July 30, 2009

‘Agents of Change’ Honored

President Obama has selected 16 ‘agents of change’ to honor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, on a cast of living and deceased figures widely known in politics, the arts and sciences, sports and social movements.

Marking a new standard in what type of folks receive this prized award, President Obama says these people he chose have ‘blazed trails and broken down barriers.’
(I couldn’t agree more!)

They include a pioneer in women’s sports, Billie Jean King, and the first woman on the Supreme Court, retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor who led an early movement for gay rights in public life and was assassinated.

The list goes on with Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer grass-roots organization; Joseph Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief and author of major works in Native American history and culture; Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., founder of an agency that provides medical care to more than 10,000 homeless patients a year in Miami.

Actor Sidney Poitier and singer Chita Rivera were also named. Among the honorees from the international scene are British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, and Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Also named were the late Republican congressman Jack Kemp, a onetime pro football standout as well, and ailing Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

More: Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, an American human geneticist internationally renowned for her work on leukemia and lymphoma; Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner who has provided loans to help millions of people fight poverty by starting businesses; American civil rights activist Rev. Joseph Lowery, and South African archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu.

"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said. "Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.

My Congratulations to all; they will be a tough act to follow!

Tongue in cheek?

To The Honorable Secretary of Agriculture
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sir;

My friend, Ed Peterson, over at Wells township in Iowa, claims he received a check for $1,000 from the government for not raising hogs. So, I want to go into the "not raising hogs" business next year.

What I want to know is, in your opinion what is the best kind of farm not to raise hogs on, and what is the best breed of hogs not to raise? I want to be sure that I approach this endeavor in keeping with all governmental policies. I would prefer not to raise razorbacks, but if that is not a good breed not to raise, then I will just as gladly not raise Yorkshires or Durocs. By the way, your county agent agreed to help, but I decided to appeal directly to you when he showed me the forms and other paperwork he needed to pay me for not raising hogs.

As I see it, the hardest part of this program will be in keeping an accurate inventory of how many hogs I haven't raised. My friend Peterson is very joyful about the future of the business.

He has been raising hogs for twenty years or so, and the best he ever made on them was $422 in 1968, until this year when he got your check for $1000 for not raising hogs.

If I get $1000 for not raising 50 hogs, will I get $2000 for not raising 100 hogs? I plan to operate on a small scale at first, holding myself down to about 4,000 hogs not raised, which will mean about $80,000 the first year. Then I can afford an airplane.

Now another thing, these hogs I will not raise will not eat 100,000 bushels of corn (my estimate). I understand that you also pay farmers for not raising corn and wheat. Will I qualify for payments for not raising the corn to not feed the 4000 hogs I am not going to raise?

Also, I am considering the "not milking cows" business, so send me any information you have on that too. Although I have no experience in not milking cows, I feel that by the time I have learned how to make out the proper forms for not raising hogs I can qualify to make out forms for not milking cows.

In view of these circumstances, you understand that I will be totally unemployed and plan to file for unemployment and food stamps. Be assured you will have my vote in the coming election.

Patriotically Yours,

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Building and Feeding Healthy Soil, Part Two

One of the primary roles of microorganisms in soil is to decompose organic compounds so the plants can utilize them. In fact, most of the nutrient (fertilizing) components we apply to our gardens cannot be used by plants as is, straight out of the bag or the compost pile. It’s the teeny-tiny soil organisms that do the real ‘conversion’ work!

The relationship between plants and microbes is called symbosis (
"the living together of unlike organisms"). A symbiotic relationship may be categorized as being mutualistic (both benefit), parasitic (one benefits, one suffers), or commensal (one benefits, no gain or loss for the other). In the case of the mycorrhizae, their symbiotic relationship with plants is mutualistic (both benefit).

As discussed in Part One, plants make energy via photosynthesis; they then chemically convert that energy into food at the root zone for microbes. Mychorrhizae, in their mutualistic symbiotic relationship with plants, “fix” nitrogen, which the plants use for growth. Different soil microorganisms digest and convert other nutrients necessary for healthy plants.

So, how do you get a good soil organism start in your garden if it is barren? Microorganisms are everywhere… on plants, in the dirt, in the air and on our skin. Soil organisms are rarely completely killed off, but in poor soil they dwindle, become dormant and unproductive. You can ‘awaken’ these dormant organisms with food, and you can add new soil organisms several ways including incorporating green manure and compost (which contain both living organisms and a food supply). If you plant a legume cover crop and incorporate it into the soil when it matures, it will add both food, and the organisms living on and in it.

Products like worm castings add some soil organisms, although they add more in the way of food. Some of the expensive liquid products contain live cultures. Just remember, you must feed the soil organisms, especially if there are no or few plants to feed them. (Seedlings don’t count; they are too small to give off any food in their roots.)

What do you feed the soil organisms? Many folks use a manure or compost tea with added molasses to supply the sugars to jump-start the soil organisms. Some make their own EM tea (search for Efficient Microbe information online). Teas can be used as a foliar spray or a drench, but foliar sprays are faster-acting. Compost and green manures add carbon-based foods.

Another benefit of adding compost is that it creates small air pockets in the soil, and beneficial (aerobic) organisms need oxygen as well as food, provided in a moist (but not saturated) soil. As the soil organisms break down compost for food, it becomes humus. Humus provides tilth, breaking up compaction.

You need to also feed the microorganisms some minerals. Most cultivated soils tend to be deficient in minerals (including trace minerals), because the minerals have been taken up by plants and not replaced. Applying fertilizers like NPK doesn’t add a full spectrum of minerals back into the soil, and may be adding too much nitrogen that soon becomes run-off. Soil organisms need trace minerals along with food and oxygen to grow and multiply.

With a good, balanced food supply, one bacterium is capable of producing 16 million more in just 24 hours. (They simply divide, providing conditions are favorable.)

Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Raleigh turns to flower power, solar power

CreativeCommons License by susteph

The Public Utilities Department of Raleigh, N.C., has planted about 50 acres of sunflowers to harvest the seeds for oil. The oil will be processed to produce biodiesel. Department officials hope the biodiesel could then be used to operate the city’s farm equipment.

Photo by the U.S. Forest Service

The city is also leasing 10 acres of land near the treatment plant to Southern Energy Management and NxGen Power to install solar panels that will generate the equivalent amount of electricity used by 200 homes a year, reports The News Observer. (Hey, it's a start!!)

NC is my home state, and I'm always pleased to see positive moves towards sustainable energy practices! This announcement comes with great timing too, just after my post about algae producing biofuels.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Who Says Weddings have to be Dull??

I certainly agree marriage is a serious commitment, but who says the wedding has to be dull??

This video featuring the wedding party entrance of (groom) Kevin Heinz and (bride) Jill Peterson has had over 7 million YouTube hits, tons of press, and the entire wedding party did their dance on the Today Show.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Don’t let cream puffs scare you!

That’s the title to this cream puff recipe in an old cookbook that was my mother’s. I’m not sure how old the cookbook is, because several pages front and back are missing. I do remember making cream puffs from this very book when I was in Junior High School… and that was a very long time ago!

The recipe starts out, “Light the oven and heat to 400ºF.” Perhaps the cookbook was put out by a gas appliance company? I guess I’ll never know, since Mother is long gone. The recipe itself is a basic cream puff (Choux Pastry) recipe, just like many on the internet, but the photos in the cookbook encouraged me to try making cream puffs all those long years ago.

Put ½ cup water and ½ stick of butter in a pot. Must be real butter!

Measure ½ cup of sifted all-purpose flour into a bowl and add 1/8 teaspoon salt; set aside. Bring the water and butter to a boil and dump in the flour mixture all at once. Stir vigorously over low heat until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Remove from heat.

Add 1 egg, beating into the dough until it is smooth and glossy; add a second egg and beat it in until the dough is really smooth and glossy. (I used 2 duck eggs, because I had them. I can't say they puffed any better than hen eggs would have... but I haven't made cream puffs in a long time.)

Drop by spoonfuls about 2" apart onto a greased cooking sheet. Do not spread out the dough. (I made just 6, but I have made a dozen or so bite-size cream puffs from the same amount of dough. Just reduce the baking time.)

Bake in the middle of the oven for about 20-25 minutes at 400ºF then reduce the heat to 350º for another 5 minutes. When they are just lightly browned, remove one cream puff from the oven and allow to cool a bit. If it falls, put it back on the baking sheet with the others and bake another 5 minutes or so. Try cooling just one again to see if it falls, if you think they may not be baked enough.

You can use the same dough recipe for éclairs. Just put the dough into a pastry bag without using a tip; pipe the dough into strips about 4" long on your baking sheet. Allow 2" between strips.

Once cooled, the cream puffs can be filled with almost anything you choose… a pudding mix, whipped cream or a whipped fruit filling, a custard…

Whatever you use as a filling, dust the tops with a bit of powdered sugar and serve.

Lemon Cream Puff Filling

I am making a light lemon whipped cream filling for my cream puffs, since it's summertime and hot weather prevails! After reading Chef Di's recipe for blueberry muffing with lemon balm, I got the bright idea to add a few finely chopped fresh lemon balm leaves, and use a few for a garnish.

Lemon Whipped Cream
1 cup well-chilled whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar or superfine sugar (bar sugar) to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped lemon balm leaves
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, to taste

Whip the cream to soft peaks, add the sugar, lemon juice and lemon balm and whip until a bit stiffer. Slice open cream puffs, add the filling, put the top back on and dust with powdered sugar.

I have a heavy glass container I always use for whipped cream except I cannot find it right now. It's actually the container from an antique cream churn, but the glass is very thick and stays cold longer than most containers. (Originally it had a lid with built-in egg-beater style paddles.) The hand mixer blades fit in it nicely and whipping cream doesn't take much effort to whip with a hand beater.

I put the glass container in the freezer while the cream is chilling. When I make whipped cream for pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, I freeze the glass jar for at least an hour, then add chilled cream, cover and refrigerate (not freeze) at least another hour before whipping. Since this filling today will go immediately into the cream puffs, I'm just using my stand mixer.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Greenhouses will grow algae for biofuel

Photo: CreativeCommons License by Lee Nachtigal

A major green fuels project was just announced by U.S. Biofuels and is expected to be completed by 2010. They purchased 12 greenhouses that cover 8 acres, and will be used to grow algae in a closed system using the photobioreactor (PBR) process. The greenhouses (with more planned) will eventually enable the company to produce over 50 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

A PBR is a bioreactor, which includes some kind of light source. Really any clear, translucent container could be called a PBR, but the term is more commonly used to define a closed system, as opposed to an open tank or pond. This system allows more species to be grown at a faster rate, extending the growing season, and if heated it can produce all year round.

Biodiesel Digest is projecting that algal biofuels capacity will reach 1 billion gallons by 2014, and a third of it is expected to use a closed system photobioreactor (PBR) process like U.S. Biofuels.

This sounds to me like a better alternative than ethanol (made from corn), which is coming under some criticism, including reports of engine problems from long-term use. Production of this type of fuel from algae should cause no harm to food prices, like found by the demand for corn reducing acreage normally used for wheat. Now if they would just develop an algae that would burn clean...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Picking Blueberies

Photo: CreativeCommons license by Tacomamama

I have more-and-less fond memories of blueberry picking, some 25 years ago. The more-fond part is the memory of gigantic, delicious berries; the less-fond part is that I ate so many while picking that my stomach rebelled at fresh blueberries for many years!

Finally undaunted and hungry for fresh blueberries, I ventured out to a U-Pick blueberry farm yesterday. It was a less than satisfactory experience, although the drive was wonderful and the weather perfect. The berries were mostly all small, about the size of English peas or maybe wild blueberries, although they were not wild.
(The photo above shows the aprox. size.) The owners didn't know the varieties since the bushes were already there and mature when they bought the property.

In two hours of picking on the steep hillside, I barely managed to fill 3/4 of my gallon pail, only spilling the contents twice. Fortunately, returning to the field after a bathroom break, I spied several bushes with just a few large berries on each one. Since this was the first day of picking, those bushes had not yet been picked. Rather, I think they were simply old, and perhaps unfertilized and un-pruned for some time. However, their berries were the size of fat nickels and I soon topped off my gallon pail.

Arriving home, I sorted out the fat berries to eat fresh, and put the rest in my Excalibur Food Dryer. I dried them perhaps only halfway, and froze them in that state. Had I dried them completely, I think they would have been the size of peppercorns! My 3/4 gallon of semi-dried smaller blueberries almost filled a quart freezer bag; nonetheless, they will be handy and tasty for blueberry muffins or pancakes this winter.

Will I do it again? Yes, and No. I certainly won't go again to a blueberry field without first asking the age and care of the bushes, and the size of the berries.

There is another U-Pick nearby that has late-season blueberries ripening about mid-August. A phone call will tell me something of their size, and that will determine if I'll pick blueberries again other than from my own garden.

I have 4 blueberry bushes in my fruit garden so far (all new this year), and although they didn't bear much fruit, all the berries were large compared to most of what I just picked. It can only get better next year!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Obama Administration seeks limits on antibiotics in livestock

The New York Times reported on July 13 that the Obama Administration would seek to ban routine use of antibiotics in farm animals. Those practices are believed to lead to development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in humans. The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated as much as 70% of antibiotic usage in the U.S. is given to healthy cattle, chickens and hogs to encourage growth and to prevent disease.

The AMA (American Medical Association) is backing the measure proposed by House Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat, of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee. It would ban seven classes of antibiotics important to human health from being used in animals, and would restrict other antibiotics to therapeutic and some preventive uses.

Naturally, organizations like the National Pork Producers Council and other lobbying groups oppose the measure. The farm lobby’s opposition makes its passage unlikely, but advocates are hoping to include the measure in the legislation to revamp the health care system.

In written testimony to the House Rules Committee, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, said feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle — done to encourage rapid growth — should cease. And Dr. Sharfstein said farmers should no longer be able to use antibiotics in animals without the supervision of a veterinarian.

"The use of antibiotics for “purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use,” Dr. Sharfstein said in his written testimony. “Eliminating these uses will not compromise the safety of food.”

Personally, I agree that confined feeding operations overuse antibiotics, although the incidence of disease in those confinement areas remains high, from what I have read over the years.

I know many small farmers who can, and do, give antibiotics to a sick or injured animal. Often they are 30 miles or more from a local veterinarian, and generally give any drugs in cooperation from/with the vet. I am not in favor of small farmers losing that privilege by this proposed ban, which will affect their ability to make a living.

As mentioned above, this measure may become part of any health care reform, so we need to be aware of the verbiage in it, and support our small farmers with appropriate consideration.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Building and Feeding Healthy Soil, Part One of Four

All gardeners know healthy plants start with healthy soil, but not all gardeners know everything it takes to really make the soil healthy. I certainly don’t, but here’s a start. If you ask that question, most gardeners will say “compost”, sometimes without understanding exactly everything compost really does in the soil, other than loosen the soil and probably add some fertilizer.

But, oh my, healthy soil is so much more than just dirt with lots of compost! If your soil has any organic material in it, you probably see a few earthworms when you dig. You might also see a few other critters like centipedes, larvae, and who knows what else… but the vitally important ‘work-horse” life that builds and maintains healthy soil is seldom seen unless you have a microscope. These small critters (microorganisms) are bacteria, mites, nematodes, fungi, yeasts, molds, protozoa... and they are present in soils in astounding numbers!

The top several inches in a square foot of good garden soil may hold 50 earthworms, but a mere teaspoon of good, healthy soil may contain a billion bacteria, several thousand protozoa, a few dozen nematodes and many yards of almost invisible fungal hyphae (thread-like filaments). All living things, including soil organisms, must eat to survive. If soil organisms have the right things to eat, they make healthy soil, which feeds the plants, which then feed us.

What do these critters eat? Well, some eat chemicals like sulfur and nitrogen, and others eat things containing carbon… such as organic plant material (wood chips, leaves, green manure, and compost), waste products from other organisms (microscopic size to very large sizes like a horse), and sometimes they eat each other.

Now, here’s a catch… (isn’t there always a catch?). If we feed a human being a diet consisting solely of hamburgers, fries and sodas, they will live, and will have some energy. But sooner or later, their vitality will wane because they haven’t consumed a well-balanced diet containing ALL the nutrients needed for building and maintaining full health. Plus, you cannot feed a human just every now and then and still expect healthy vitality. The same is true for soil life. They need a constant supply of good nutrients in balance, and just adding compost and NPK doesn’t cut it.

By a neat action of Grand Design, plants provide much of the food the critters need. Plants do this through photosynthesis, producing energy in the leaves. This energy is converted to chemicals the plants give off in their root area (which is called the rhizosphere and is the tiny space immediately surrounding the roots). These chemicals are mostly carbs (which include sugars such as glucose and sucrose), amino acids, proteins, water and minerals, which attract and feed beneficial microbes.

The other neat action of Grand Design is that the waste products given off by the soil organisms are the very things the plants need (and in the right form to take up by the roots)… nutrients like minerals, vitamins, and nitrogen. For an example: plants may not be able to take up phosphate ions that are locked up in soils. The mycelium (the thread-like part) of the mycorrhizal fungus can process the phosphorus and make it available to the plants. (Mycorrhizae are especially beneficial for their plant partner in nutrient-poor soils.) Some microbes are able to “fix” nitrogen from the air and make it available to plants. These are often bacteria, blue-green algae and mycorrhizae/

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Baking Pan Release Agent Recipe

Someone asked me for this recipe, so I’m posting it here. It is not original; it came from a friend who got it from a friend… you know how that goes! At any rate, I make up a batch of this, give half away (it’s easier to mix a whole batch) and always have some in a mason jar on my pantry shelf. I love using it; MUCH easier than buttering and flouring a cake pan (or whatever), and it has no really bad stuff in it. I also find it doesn’t build up a residue on my pans.

Baking pan release agent
½ cup vegetable oil (I use safflower, because it’s all I keep on hand besides olive oil)
½ cup vegetable shortening at room temp (I use Crisco)

½ cup all-purpose flour

Mix everything together with an electric mixer. It will get nice and fluffy. Place in a lidded jar and store in the pantry. I never refrigerate mine, but my pantry stays cool. Occasionally it separates a bit, and I just stir it back together.

Use a pastry brush to lightly coat baking pans with this stuff; the brush washes easily. (I have used a paper towel in a pinch.)

Ages ago I saw this, or a similar recipe, and it suggested using unsweetened powdered cocoa in place of the white flour (or half of each) for baking chocolate things. It doesn’t leave a trace of white residue on your cakes, etc. However, I have not noticed any residue on what I bake, maybe because I apply it lightly and don’t bake much that’s chocolate.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Court Upholds Ban on Monsanto's GE Alfalfa

A federal appeals court upheld a 2-year-old ban on Monsanto Co.'s genetically modified alfalfa in a case a biotech food opponent calls a "turning point" in the regulation of such crops, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 24 leaves Monsanto with two options. It can appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, or hope for regulatory approval after the Agriculture Department completes a comprehensive environmental review.

The 2 year-old ban came from a U.S. District Judge in San Francisco who issued an injunction that banned the planting of biotech alfalfa after March 30, 2007. By then, more than 260,000 acres of the Roundup Ready alfalfa had been planted.

There are very real concerns that conventional and organic alfalfa could be contaminated through cross-pollination, preventing crops from being sold. There are claims biotech crops have led to overuse of herbicides and given rise to "super weeds" resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

Biotech opponents say the case is much broader than just GE alfalfa because it marks the first time a thorough environmental review has been required for regulatory approval of a genetically modified crop. Such a study will help regulators and the public understand any risks associated with crops that are genetically engineered.

Monsanto is still hopeful for government approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa and believes the results of the environmental impact statement could help with future reviews of new biotech crops.

Meanwhile, a
lawsuit challenging the government's approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets is pending.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Major health hazards and GMO foods, pesticides

GMO (genetically modified organisms) are now found in more than 80% of non-organic foods sold in conventional grocery stores in the United States. An alarming study conducted by French, Italian, New Zealand, British and American experts was just published pointing to serious health hazards from genetically engineered foods and pesticides.

study brings to light "a significant underestimation of the initial signs of diseases like cancer and diseases of the hormonal, immune, nervous and reproductive systems, among others. We demand the systematic publication of the results of these tests, which we could only obtain on a case by case basis by taking legal action."

The findings are in agreement with the decade-long criticism by public interest organizations such as
Greenpeace, Organic Consumers Association and Friends of the Earth who contend bureaucrats of the FDA and the European Food Safety have used unreliable tests to assess the safety of foods and products containing GMO’s.

GMO foods and the FDA

Speaking of the FDA, I see Michael Taylor has returned to the FDA, now appointed as 'senior advisor to the commissioner' of the Food and Drug Administration. I have some concerns based on what I have read about Mr. Taylor and his career.

After finishing his law degree, he began his career at the FDA in 1976 as a staff attorney for about 5 years. He left them for 10 years of private law practice, and returned to the FDA in 1991 as Deputy Commissioner for Policy.

That didn’t last long. In 1994 he served Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (What do the USDA food inspections actually provide to us?) Mr. Taylor's previous work includes
Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto Corp - the giant chemical company responsible for 'Roundup' and genetically engineered seeds. He also served as Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future where he focused on food safety as a global health concern and the impact of U.S. agricultural, trade, and development policies on poverty and hunger reduction in Africa.

Mr. Taylor became Professor Taylor in 2007, joining the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University. There he taught
PubH 209: Policymaking at the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health Policy.

His faculty page bio says: "Since joining SPHHS in 2007, Professor Taylor has promoted efforts to strengthen the FDA, especially by enhancing the agency's authority, resources and management structure. 'No federal agency touches as many lives as intimately as the FDA, or works on a wider range of challenging public health policy issues,' says Mr. Taylor. 'The goal of my research and teaching is to bring these issues to life and equip students with a framework for understanding and analyzing them.' "

In recent years, he has also directed his longstanding interest in food systems and problems of food security to agriculture-led economic growth in rural Africa."

Interestingly enough, my understanding of our new policy on aid to Africa is that it includes the use of Monsanto’s GMO seeds. Monsanto is the world's leading supplier of the herbicide 'Roundup' and is also the top producer of genetically engineered seeds. Michael Taylor was a senior lobbyist for Monsanto.

I'm all for teaching/helping farmer's grow their own crops to feed their own people, but to teach them something that demands they buy seeds every year from the teacher doesn't seem right. Monsanto's GMO seeds are engineered to be sterile in the next generation, which means farmer's must purchase new seeds every year instead of saving seed they have grown.

Monsanto and others would have us believe GMO crops would insure food safety. My question is "safe for what?" Safe for human and animal health, or safe for corporate profit?

Why on earth was one of the former top GMO lobbyists appointed to the FDA?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Cronkite

It was only because of men like Walter Cronkite and Edward. R. Murrow (who recruited Cronkite for CBS News) that I ever began really paying attention to the news. Of course, that was back in the days when the news was seldom manipulated nor controlled.

I did not always agree with Walter Cronkite on some of his rarely voiced personal views, but I certainly respected the integrity of the man, and his broadcasting. He said,
“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.” Mr. Cronkite died July 17 from cerebrovascular disease.

I saw many similarities in the two men. Mr. Murrow is quoted as saying, “
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.

Mr. Cronkite said,
“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”

And that's the way it is.

Is what we eat killing us?

Photo by pointnshoot

Researchers have found a substantial link between diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Type II Diabetes Mellitus and nitrates in processed foods, fertilizers and our water supply.

The study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (Volume 17:3 July 2009) says we have become a ‘nitrosamine’ generation’ by moving to a diet rich in amines and nitrates/nitrites, which increase nitrosamine production in the human body. (Nitrosamines, known to be carcinogenic, are produced by a chemical reaction between nitrates, or other proteins especially under high heat like frying, or in strong acid found in the human stomach.)

A 2007 study by Columbia University suggests a link between eating cured meats (such as sausage and bacon) and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The preservative sodium nitrite is the probable cause, and bacon made without added nitrites is available. Processed red meat is a major cause of colorectal cancer.

Nitrates in significant levels are found in ground beef, bacon, cured meats, cheese products, beer and water. Sodium nitrite is routinely added to fish and meat to prevent toxins, and it is used to color (the reddening effect) and flavor meats.

If it isn’t bad enough that we get these additives from processed foods, we now get an over-abundance of them from the increased use of nitrate-containing fertilizers. These nitrates get into our food supply by leaching from the soil and contaminating water supplies used for crop irrigation, food processing and drinking. Through farm runoff, nitrogen also makes its way into streams and rivers, and eventually estuaries and oceans. There, it sets off an explosive growth of algae that steals oxygen away from other organisms, creating so-called "dead zones". (Pesticides and cosmetics also contain significant amounts of nitrates.

My locally grown organic meat and poultry are raised on grass pastures that are not sprayed with pesticides, nor is their grass pasture fertilized with chemical fertilizers. Those meat animals are also not grain-finished (most traditional feed grains are non-organic GMO grains raised by Big Ag). The local abattoir (slaughterhouse) here does not add any coloring or flavoring chemicals to the meats, either.

Is there an easy fix, or some positive direction towards an answer?
I would like to hope so, even though I personally think it is doubtful. If I lived in a high-rise apartment in a big city, there would be no local pastured meat and poultry just down the road… there would be only my corner grocer who stocks factory-prepared meats, and fast food establishments. Most kids are not going to give up Happy Meals, and busy, busy families are not going to give up fast foods.

Humans have been ‘curing’ meat and fish for milleniums... originally,
the only means of preservation. Our cured meats are now largely cultural, and we are not likely to give up the foods of our heritage (or advertising).

What we can do is use our considerable consumer power at the check-out counter (along with contacting our elected government representatives) to demand healthier-raised and processed food products, and more environmental restrictions on the over-use of nitrates which pour into our water supply.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Swiss Chard

I don't know why every gardener doesn't grow chard, even if they don't like it to eat. It is by far the prettiest plant in my vegetable garden! This year I have rainbow chard, shown in the photo above, and ruby red chard in another bed.

The World's Healthiest Foods
this to say about the nutritional value of chard. I couldn't say it any better, so I'm quoting from their site.

"If vegetables got grades for traditional nutrients alone, Swiss chard would be one of the vegetable valedictorians. The vitamin and mineral profile of this leafy green vegetable contains enough "excellents" to ensure its place at the head of the vegetable Dean's List. Our rating system awards Swiss chard with excellent marks for its concentrations of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, vitamin E, and dietary fiber.

Swiss chard also emerges as a very good or good source of copper, calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, protein, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, folate, biotin, niacin and pantothenic acid."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Great Potato Experiment Update

So far, the results are 50-50 as far as growth. Here's the original post.

All of the fingerlings planted June 15 on straw in tires over weed-cloth have finally sprouted. There were times I had my doubts, though. The covering is new straw, and just a small amount of dry grass clippings.

None of the fingerlings planted on grass clippings on top of weed-cloth have sprouted, at least not through the grass so I can see. Their covering is only grass clippings. Both plantings have received enough water not to dry out for more than a day, both have been fertilized with a liquid fertilizer, and neither is in any dirt.

I have hopes of a decent, if small, fingerling potato crop!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The essence of M.F.K. Fisher

Photo by Dan4th

Several years ago I was a member of a very small group that enjoyed monthly dinners together, each of us taking a turn as host. Although most were accomplished cooks, and the meals superb, what stands out was the absolute dedication to enjoyment of both food and company.

At one of the first dinners, the host formally quoted M.F.K. Fisher to begin the meal. I had not heard of Fisher (1908-1992) at the time, but have since bought and enjoyed her books. To this day, I love this quote for a meal
shared with friends:

On Dining Companions

Dining partners, regardless of gender, social standing, or the years they have lived, should be chosen for their ability to eat -- and drink! -- with the right mixture of abandon and restraint.

They should be able, no, eager, to sit for hours over a meal of soup and wine and cheese, as well as one of 20 fabulous courses.

Then, with good friends of such attributes, and good food on the board, and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask, "When shall we live, if not now?"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Planet Index

Are you happy? Does your environment help or hinder your ability to lead a long and happy life?

There is an index that measures factors that lead to a long and happy life by combining the impact of environment (ecological efficiency) and human well-being, by country. The recently released
Happy Planet Index Report 2.0 lists some interesting results.

Latin American and Caribbean countries occupied 9 of the top 10 slots, while the USA was listed as number 114.

Why are the people in those 9 countries so happy? According to the report, they are “much less concerned with material issues than, for example, they are with their friends and family.” Those countries also have made great progress in ecological sustainability.

Costa Rica has nearly eliminated fossil fuels for energy generation, and Colombia has a “Green Constitution”.
Costa Ricans reportedly have the highest life satisfaction in the world, and their life expectancy is second-highest in the Americas, following Canada.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Who is spending what?

Jill Richardson investigated and wrote about this information, which should make us all pause to consider just who is trying to shape government policy in their favor, and how much the biggest spenders were willing to bet on their horse winning.

Ms. Richardson pulled the report for the first quarter 2009 and found an astounding list of more than 20,000 -- corporations, individuals and groups -- who spent money trying to curry favor among the policy-makers in America. When she narrowed her parameters to just expenditures of over one million dollars, more than 100 came up (including AIG, who spent $1,250,000 on lobbying during that period).

The following totals are for just the first 3 months of 2009:

1) $42 Million: Health Care, Health Insurance, & Pharma

2) $31 Million: Oil

3) $20 Million: War

4) $17 Million: Telecoms

5) $15 Million: Financial

6) $10 Million: Automotive

7) $7 Million: Life Insurance

8) $6 Million: Biotech

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is your bottled water safe?

Do you know if your bottled water is safe? Neither does the Food and Drug Administration.

The Wall Street Journal reports on Congressional hearings that are going on about bottled water right now, and apparently the FDA (which oversees the $11.2 billion industry) is pretty forthcoming in its non-tracking of the water.

Currently, the FDA does not monitor bottlers. FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein testified that the agency regulates bottled water as a food, and doesn’t know which companies among registered food firms make bottled water.

Recently (July 8, 2009) consumer advocates testified before the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Panel; they say bottlers should be required to disclose more information to consumers. According to the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the oversight panel, said in the past several years, bottlers have recalled water contaminated with arsenic, cleaning compounds and bacteria.

The good news is that the FDA is tightening some rules. (The industry, which includes PepsiCo Inc.’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola Co.’s Dasani, currently isn’t required to report tests that turned up contamination.)

Bottlers have until December 2009 to eliminate E. coli from bottled water products, and as early as September they have to report tests that show a “serious health threat” (whatever that means). By contrast, municipal water authorities must report dangerous contaminants within 24 hours.

Harvesting Shallots

The shallots are ready to harvest! I planted 2 kinds of shallots last fall, Dutch yellow shallots, and French red shallots, and just harvested the Dutch yellows. By accident, I also dug 2 clumps of the French reds, not remembering where one batch ended and the next began.

The French reds are on the left of the photo above, and as you can see, they are considerably larger than the Dutch yellows. There are more yellow shallots than shown, as I had already bundled some. I will dig the French reds in a few days; I’m waiting until the few seed heads I purposefully left on the plants mature a bit more.

I now have the yellow shallots I just dug tied in bundles and hanging in my root cellar (with a small fan running) to cure. Curing shallots is pretty much the same as curing garlic. See the garlic post here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wild Sockeye Salmon & Steamed Sugar Snaps

I was lucky to find some fresh, wild-caught sockeye salmon at a store in Boone this week. At $11.95 a pound on sale, I felt like a small piece wouldn’t damage the budget too much. Besides, I rarely find wild sockeye around here.

I cooked the salmon using a recipe I saw on an Alton Brown show recently, Broiled Sockeye Salmon with Citrus Glaze. My camera pooped out before I could get a photo of the broiled salmon (even the cooked peas photo is lousy, sorry). Sigh.

For the vegetable, I picked some fresh sugar snaps. After stringing and removing the calyx (cap at one end), I steamed the snaps for about 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, I melted a tablespoon plus of butter and barely simmered some fresh chives and fresh mint for a butter sauce. When the snaps were tender, I tossed them in the butter sauce and topped with a tad of julienned mint as a garnish. They didn’t even need any salt or pepper to eat. YUM!

For a starch I made my old fall-back, bulgur, because it cooks in mere minutes. Cook bulgur in twice as much liquid as grain amount. I use any broth I have on hand (chicken, beef, vegetable) or just water or half-water and half-broth if I don’t want the taste to overpower another dish at the meal. This time I used water. Add a little salt to taste in cooking. Tip: I salt the water to taste before adding the grains to cook, same as I do for rice.

Recipe: Sugar Snaps with Mint and Chive Butter Sauce

Choose the amount of sugar snaps needed for serving. I was cooking just for myself, so maybe a heaping cup. (They aren’t very good leftover, too mushy.)

1-2 Tbs. Butter

1 tsp. fresh chopped chives

1 tsp. fresh chopped mint

Salt, optional

Remove the calyx and string the sugar snaps. When the peas are ready to steam, put the butter in a saucepan large enough to hold the peas; melt the butter and when it starts to bubble, add the herbs. Cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes, and remove from heat.

Place the peas in a steamer basket over boiling water, cover and steam 4-8 minutes until they are as tender as you wish. (They don't have to be cooked to eat; I eat them raw in salads.) Remove cover and remove from heat immediately. Drain for just a moment, add the peas to the butter sauce and toss to coat evenly. Serve immediately.

Friday, July 10, 2009

But First: the route to doing one simple task

I need to side-dress my veggies with some Cal-Phos, and with the weather forecast calling for a warm & sunny day, now is a good time to do it. But First, I need to put part of the 40 pound bag of Cal-Phos into a smaller container so I can carry it to the garden. But First I need to scrub out a bucket… Might as well scrub out all the buckets if I’m going to drag out the hose and a scrub brush…

But First I need to take the buckets to the dump and empty them; they are full of non-compostible debris. But First I need to go to town and fill my gas tank so I can make it to the dump and back. And, if I’m going to town I may as well pick up a few groceries and save an extra trip. But First I need to balance my checkbook to see how much money I have available.

If I’m going to town, I have to change these clothes. But First I need a shower… But First I have to wait for our old, slow water heater to re-heat from the 2 showers just taken by my sis and my niece. While I’m waiting for the water to heat up, I may as well do a load of laundry since I just use cold water for most of my laundry anyway. But First I should change my sheets since I don’t have enough for a full load of laundry.

All my linens are in a huge stack I didn’t put away when I started cleaning out the closets several days ago. I need to put those away so I can get to the sheets. But First I need to reline the linen-closet shelves, and I am not sure to find my shelf paper. I have several unpacked boxes in the shed, and it’s in one of them. But First I have to find where I put the key to the shed…

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The time has come, the walrus said...

For several years I have had concerns about the safety of my foods that come from grocery stores. As the food quality has decreased, and the greenwashing increased, my concern has also increased.

My willingness to bring up discussions about agribusiness (and laws tailored to their favor) within my circle of close friends has been pretty apparent for several years. For the last 2-3 years I have posted in many places news about food and farm legislation or related events that escape media headlines, but I’ve done it as a reporter might, without much stated opinion. After all, most of this country considers speaking out as rabble-rousing, or being of the lunatic fringe.

Lately it appears that to be concerned and voice that concern, possibly labels me as a terrorist with Homeland Security. Yes, that’s right…my understanding is HS sees telling the truth about some factory food production as fomenting discontent, which could lead to insurrection. BigAg (or somebody?) is trying to get it made a crime to show photos of factory farms on the Internet, according to Food, Inc.

This morning while reading about the PASS ID Act S.1261, I had to stop and look at my own image in the mirror. I didn’t much like the ethics I saw staring back. I have avoided speaking out in public, hesitating over what I could lose, including friends.
Much of what is going on behind the scenes is classic totalitarian strategy, summed up by the German Pastor Martin Niemoller in this rhetoric we all have read and heard many times:

"...first (they came) for the Communists,

And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
and by that time there was no one left to speak up."

In 13 states (another 10 states have legislation in the works), there are food disparagement laws that make it a crime to criticize agricultural products without “sound, scientific basis”. The catch is in the “basis”, and agribusinesses have refuted scientific studies (other than biased research they supported and paid for) for in court and won.

Only those with deep pockets have won lawsuits about food disparagement. One case in point is the $10.3 million Texas lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey and vegetarian activist Howard Lyman several years ago. Lyman described some factory farm (feedlot) practices of feeding “rendered” cattle to cows on Oprah’s show, and she responded that the revelation would stop her from eating another burger. The suit was eventually dropped but not until attorney fees had cost Ms. Winfrey over a million dollars.

Commenting about the dangers of salmonella or e. coli on vegetables, irradiated foods, or the potential of adult-onset diabetes from overly-sweetened and nutrient-poor “fast foods” and sodas could drop a lawsuit on me in any one of the 13 states with food disparagement laws, and if I make such statements on the internet, ALL 13 states could sue me.

I personally believe those laws are a violation of the Right to Free Speech but no appeal has made it to the Supreme Court yet. That doesn’t mean I think it is okay to make false claims or untrue damaging statements about food and food companies, but I do think it is our Right to know the Truth about our food.

Food disparagement laws are the "descendants of criminal sedition laws, which made it a crime to criticize public officials," said American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director (1978 to 2001) Ira Glasser. "Today, such laws are used almost exclusively by the powerful to silence their critics."

If I do not stand up for what I believe, what I ultimately have to lose is my freedom along with my health… and the rights guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. Or I can sit quietly by, saying little, and watch my/our freedom and rights being eroded in such a way that most of us won’t even realize it until they are gone.

The Shortest Tunnel

Returning from my short trip this week, I came home by way of cutting across a corner of Tennessee. There, I discovered what must be the shortest tunnel anywhere… a mere 20 feet long!

One of the primary industries in the Southern Appalachians in the late 1800’s to about 1912 was timber harvesting the old-growth forests. The Tennessee Lumber Company had hired 400 men who sawed 100,000 board-feet of lumber daily, and they needed a way to get it to market. This short tunnel I drove through was once the rail-bed built following the natural terrain.

The mining company laying the track came to a stone ridge standing 75 feet high and 20 feet thick, named Backbone Rock for the shape. They decided to blast a short tunnel through the rock, and continue with laying track. If you look closely at the top of the tunnel, you will see it isn’t really rounded; they forgot to take into account the locomotive’s smokestack, and had to chisel out a little more height in the center!

By 1912 all the timber was gone, and the sawmill moved on. The US Forest Service used the rail line as a truck trail, and today it is a picturesque 2 lane road, TN 133. In the 1930’s, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built a trail to the top of Backbone Rock, and the Tennessee Wildlife Agency has developed the area around it for camping, picnicking, and hiking. Beaverdam Creek runs next to Backbone Rock and is a popular fishing spot, and rock climbers use the rock walls to practice.

If you ever get close to Damascus, Virginia, be sure to check out Backbone Rock. It’s about 4 miles south of Main Street, on Shady Lane. Damascus has miles of family bike trails along the abandoned old narrow-gauge railroad right-of-ways. The tracks have been long gone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Blue Ridge, Rhododendrons and a Waterwheel

I made a short trip yesterday across Mt. Rogers, located in my corner of SW Virginia (the highest peak in Virginia, at 5,729 feet), going to see a friend near Boone, NC. I didn't actually cross Mt. Rogers, but Whitetop Mountain adjacent to it. Whitetop is the second highest peak in VA; it is unique for the fact that it represents an ecological "island" of flora and fauna commonly found much further north than Virginia, such as old growth red spruce and other northern hardwoods.

The rhododendrons were in full bloom along my trip! Everywhere that they looked truly spectacular, there was no place to pull over for a photo, or they were in too much shade.
Fortunately the friend I went to see has a bank of them in bloom along her creek next to the house and waterwheel her husband built. I wasn't willing to risk walking across an old rickety footbridge to get a close-up of a bloom, so this shot will have to do. (One of these days I hope to get a good camera and learn to take better photographs.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stonyfield Greener Cow Project

Photo is licensed under a Creative Commons license by kevinzim

Most of us are aware cows produce methane (a greenhouse gas) and we know that methane contributes to global warming. But did you know the common assumption being the cows produce all that methane gas from farts and cow pies is actually false?

While Stonyfield was doing extensive studies to see how reduce their carbon footprint, they discovered the cows were the leading source, rather than the manufacturing plant processes. It was only later that they learned of an approach from their French partner that reduces the methane output… and by good fortune, also increases the nutritional content of the milk.

The approach turned out to be changing the feed for the cows. 95% of the methane from cows comes from burping (enteric emissions), and burping is significantly reduced either by putting cows on pasture, or by changing the feed to include more omega-3s from things like flax, alfalfa and grasses. These feeds are easily broken down by the cow’s rumen (the first chamber of the 4 chambers in a cow’s stomach). The rumen serves as the primary site for microbial fermentation of ingested feed. A cow’s stomach is not designed to digest the corn fed to them in feedlots, and so it produces a lot of gas trying to digest the corn.

Stonyfield began their Greener Cow pilot program in late 2008, with 15 Vermont Organic Valley farms that supply the milk for Stonyfield’s yogurt. The feed change has resulted in the milk’s increase of omega-3s and a decrease in saturated fats, along with a reduction of methane produced by the cows. The enteric emissions (burping) have been decreased by as much as 18%, with an average of 12%.
“If every US dairy were to adopt this approach, in less than one year, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we could reduce would be the equivalent of taking more than 500,000 cars off the road, “ said Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield V.P. of Natural Resources and the director of the Stonyfield Greener Cow Project.

The omega-3s in the milk increased by nearly 1/3 (29%) and lowered the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (that balance regulates key human physiological functions). According to research, human diet today contains too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 (both are essential fatty acids).

“Only plants can synthesize omega-6 and omega-3. By eating animals that have consumed plants high in omega-3, humans get this important nutrient. Over the past 50 years, though, our diets have changed and we now consume more omega-6 rich foods such as corn oil, palm oil and soybean oil. We also changed what livestock eat by increasing the amount of corn and soy in their feed, and decreasing grass, which is high in omega-3. The result is that eggs, meat and
dairy have less omega-3. Thus, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in our diets--which used to be about 1or 2 to 1--is now out of balance with about 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3,” said Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., international authority on essential fatty acids and former chair of the Nutrition Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Studies have shown that by improving the balance of omega-6 to omega-3, we decrease our chances of cardiovascular disease, obesity and many other health complications. The Greener Cow Project will benefit the cows, the planet and our bodies... which sounds like a great plan to me.

There is a nice video about this here:
The Greener Cow Project.

Monday, July 6, 2009

10º Brix Cantaluope, 17º Brix Peas

A major goal in my growing my own vegetables is increasing the Brix, which is a measurement of the nutrient-density. Brix is also something you can taste! For example, a cantaloupe I just purchased smelled fairly decent in the store. With high hopes for a tasty melon, I actually bought it and brought it home, despite past experiences with store-bought melons. I peeled and chunked up a bowl of the melon, pulled out a fork to taste a bite, and… yuck. Wet Nothing. No Taste.

So I got out my pocket refractometer and squeezed a drop of juice on the lens. It measured 10ºBx. The Brix chart is divided into values for Poor, Average (grocery-store), Good, Excellent, and Disease/Insect-free (for the plant). The numbers for cantaloupe are 8= Poor, 12= Average, 14= Good, 16= Excellent and Disease-Free. So, my store-bought cantaloupe measured between Poor and Average. No wonder it tasted like Nothing!

By contrast, I measured my home-grown peas just now. They measured 17ºBx!! The spread for peas on the Brix scale is 8, 10, 12, and 14. They taste just as wonderful as they measure, AND the plants are disease/insect-free.

So what’s the difference? Soil. Plain and simple. Well, perhaps not quite so simple. Conventional agricultural wisdom lists a whole slew of numbers of what the soil needs to grow stuff. Dr. Carey Reams, Professor Albrecht and others have differing opinions, with results borne out in taste tests, nutrition analysis, crop yields, and visible evidence like pests, disease and weeds.

One of the several elements needed in soil to produce high Brix is calcium, but there’s a trick to it. My soil tests indicated a high level of calcium, yet the Brix on most of my vegetables last year was marginal. All the soil calcium in the world does absolutely no good unless it can be broken down into a form the plants can use (available calcium). Soil microbes do the bulk of this work, but they need something to work with other than just the locked-up calcium in my soil, although they will convert that too, over time.

To get higher Brix this year, I have started applying soft rock phosphate (SRP, a colloidal phosphate, and a natural source of calcium and phosphate in a form plants can use). Most rock phosphates are hard rock phosphates, and will simply not do the job. I found a nearby organic supplier who carries Cal-Phos (SRP) in 40 pound bags and I apply it in each planting hole.
There are other SRP sources, but that's what's available close to me.

(The local market farmer who supplies my free-range eggs buys thousands of pounds of Cal-Phos from the same supplier, for his fields. He is able to grow high Brix grass for his dairy cows and poultry, and he reports his family’s milk has very high Brix.)

There’s more to high Brix than just available calcium, of course. I will be adding to the basic information about improving soil and Brix over the next few months. Stay tuned!

Download a Brix Chart